About fifteen years ago, on the third or fourth day of Passover, some relatives took me and my brother to a sports bar to get some lunch. One of them ordered a caesar salad topped with steak, shrimp, cheese, bacon bits—“but waiter, please no croutons.”
“No croutons . . . why no croutons?” I asked. “Cole, it’s Pesach,” my relative said. “We’re not gentiles!”
Passover celebrates the exodus from slavery under Pharaoh to the service of God. The Passover Seder inaugurates the festival and is probably Jewry’s best observed occasion. Abstaining from leavened bread is probably our best respected ritual prohibition. And it’s not just eating that’s out of bounds––“For seven days leaven shall not be found in your dwellings, for all who eat leaven shall have their souls excised from the congregation of Israel, citizens and strangers alike.” Chametz (the Hebrew word for leavened products) can’t be owned or stewarded for gentiles. On the day of the Seder night, we burn whatever chametz is left after the previous evening’s hours-long search for an elusive cookie, noodle, or hamentasch. Some authorities believe that if you don’t have chametz to speak of, you’ve got to get some so that you can then destroy it. Which fastidiousness seems crazy. Why is this commandment different from all the other commandments?
For several centuries the Jews labored for the Egyptians. Their physical strains were requited with physical comfort, nothing more. They procreated and, as they testify later, they sat by the fleshpots. The cries of anguish mentioned at the start of Exodus reminding God of his covenant are those of exhausted, faithless slaves.
God sends Moses to free his people, but nine plagues later they haven’t contributed much to their own salvation. Before he smites the Egyptian firstborn, the Lord demands free cooperation from those he intends to make his people. As Leon Kass writes in Founding God’s Nation, “If [the Israelites] are to make the transition from slavery toward the possibility of self-rule, the people themselves must do something to earn their redemption.” The blood of the Paschal sacrifice (offered by each family) marks the doorposts of those trading Pharaoh for God. It will be eaten in haste with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.
God then offers parallel instructions about future commemorations of Passover night. “For seven days shall you eat matzah and on the first day you will remove leaven from your dwellings, for whoever eats leaven from the first to the seventh day, his life will be excised from the Congregation of Israel.” The dough cannot be augmented––it is the bread of affliction, we’re told in Deuteronomy. It cannot be boiled or made into large cakes. “With haste did you leave Egypt,” the Israelites are reminded in Moses’s valedictory address, and the under-baked bread recalls the surprise gift of their national redemption.
Chametz shares origins with unleavened bread. Bread-making is a kind of test of human adulthood (to which the Israelite slaves, long subservient and dependent, will need to graduate if they’re to become God’s nation). Kass writes that bread “bespeaks man’s rational power to transform external nature for human use” and “to tame his own appetites through delayed gratification.” God is the lead actor at the start. He commands rain and sunshine, and keeps the seeds in the soil.
Once the wheat is harvested and ground into flour, chametz and matzah diverge. All man’s culinary (and technological) skill calibrate chametz to the tastes of human beings. But to make matzah you just add water and a few minutes in the oven. Matzah sates our needs without indulging our appetites.
Chametz embodies our attention to our own tastes beyond what’s strictly necessary for our health and therefore for God’s work. There is nothing so very awful about that, but (to use Kass’s phrase) at the “people-forming” moment, any homage to Pharaoh and to the profane culture over which he presides has to be rejected absolutely. We cannot serve him and God both. Any remnant of our devotion to desacralized human wants declares a split allegiance.
The Babylonian Talmud relates that Rabbi Aleksandri would conclude his prayers, “Master of the Universe, you know that we will to do your will. What obstructs us? The yeast of dough, and the oppression of kings.” Human tyrants have frequently outlawed Jewish practices. In political and non-political forms, they demand time that rightfully belongs to God. So it is with our tastes for delicious food, but more broadly, for our own arts. The destruction of chametz is the rejection of what’s pleasing, dainty, ornate, and entertaining—and therefore diverting. The Lord’s call may come at any moment. You don’t want to get caught stuffing your face from the fleshpots of Egypt.
Cole S. Aronson is a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.
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